Pakistani media highs and lows
Ilona Gerbakher wasn’t entirely happy with the earlier draft of her piece, which I posted prematurely. So I am posting a rewrite:
Pakistan’s lively but undisciplined media sector was the focus of a Tuesday panel at the United States Institute of Peace on “Pakistani Media: Getting Beyond the Hype.”
Steve Inskeep, the moderator and a host on NPR’s Morning Edition opened the discussion by asking the panelists how they would describe the Pakistani media today. Asma Shirazi, a protégé of Imran Aslam and a senior anchor/producer of SAMAA TV (a Pakistani satellite news channel), used the word “maturing” to describe the emergence of an independent media corps in Pakistan over the last two decades:
Our media is not very mature, but…our journalists are working day and night. They get threats from the…Taliban, and it’s a very different and difficult society…I think it will take some time, but I think we should be hopeful.
She referenced her experience of death threats and being followed by the ISI as one of the first female anchors to work during the Musharraf era and called for a media lobbying group or press council to help protect journalists.
She also underlined the ability of the independent Pakistani media to speak “truth to power,” particularly where women’s rights are concerned. When Shirazi started working on public Pakistani television, nobody was willing to talk to her, in part because of gender. Now women’s attitudes about their own rights are changing. They want to live like human beings in a society where girls are not being killed just because of something said in the media.
Wendy Chamberlain, President of the Middle East Institute and former US Ambassador to Pakistan, shifted the discussion to a comparison between the American and Pakistani media, describing both as “info-tainment, driven by audience ratings, profit and the bottom line.” This has led to immaturity in the American media, making it more like the media in Pakistan today, as in both countries the emphasis is on giving the audience what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. Ambassador Chamberlain urged both to take a close look at themselves and to remember that accuracy and educating the public are serious responsibilities. Imran Aslam agreed, noting that “commercialism is as great a censor of free thought in Pakistan” as the army.
Cyril Almeida, assistant editor at DAWN (Pakistan’s oldest English language newspaper), characterized Pakistani media as open. He claimed that there is nothing in Pakistan that you cannot discuss in media or print anymore and asked if that might be too much. Imran Aslam, president and chief content officer of GEO TV (one of Pakistan’s leading independent media outlets) replied with the words “maddening, vibrant, diversified.” He was ambivalent about the current multiplicity of narratives available to media consumers in Pakistan. Official state television once had the important function of creating a uniform public narrative and a (possibly false) sense of nationhood, where dissenting voices were not heard. Now electronic media have fallen into the trap of commercialization, fracturing the unity of the national narrative.
Cyril Almeida and Imran Aslam described the 2009 lawyers’ movement as the apex of electronic media power. Today the Pakistani media is coming to terms with its own limitations after getting a taste of real power for a few years at the end of the last decade. Aslam added, “the 2009 lawyers’ movement really went to the media’s head, like cocaine—the anchors became rock stars…” He suggested that the word “cocaine” be added to the list of words describing the Pakistani media.
Imran Aslam emphasized that the Pakistani media is not anti-America but opposes American policies. He noted that the greatest ambition of the average Pakistani child is an American education. Despite objections to American policies in the region, America’s cultural capital in Pakistan is still strong.
This rather rosy picture was immediately belied by a disagreement between Ambassador Chamberlain and Asma Shirazi, who said that Pakistanis feel abandoned by America. She remarked with some heat, “You had one 9/11. We are having daily 9/11’s just because of the US.” Ambassador Chamberlain quickly denied responsibility. As the argument about 9/11 became more heated, what emerged from the panel was a sense of what Imran Aslam called “mutual incomprehension:” even a panel of experts in Pakistani-American relations could not seem to come to an accord.